Omicron is a wake-up call for a world short on cooperation but long on greed and nationalism

Vaccine apartheid denies poor countries access to a life-saving intervention. Yet as long as the virus exists anywhere in the world, no one is safe

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
Tuesday 14 December 2021 12:54
Comments
Omicron travel bans

As world leaders rightfully told their people to vaccinate because the jab saves lives, they also said we have to follow science. At the same time, the same world leaders hoarded vaccines from masses of people in poorer countries. This exposed us to the failure of global solidarity and the need to speak up as global citizens.

Covid-19 has caused immeasurable harm and disproportionately affected women and girls. Two thirds of jobs lost were lost by women, and child marriage increased in impoverished households in Africa, sending many girls to a life of poverty and gender-based violence. At this stage, every step we take to fight the pandemic must be the step we take to rebuild our economies.

It was therefore a shock to us in my country of South Africa, and right across southern Africa, when we were punished for sharing information with the world about the omicron variant. This is a variant that was not only in Africa but also in a number of countries and was destined to spread through the world. For providing important scientific information, South Africa and its neighbours were slammed with a travel ban, taking away jobs, affecting credit ratings and impacting the morale of many hard working people.

Every time rich countries make decisions that are not backed up by science they set us back. Every time they make decisions without supporting data they undermine the important role of science. Vaccine apartheid denies poor countries access to a life-saving intervention. And yet, as long as the virus exists anywhere in the world, no one is safe and new variants have a fertile ground.

As we speak, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention informs us that over 90 per cent of my African sisters and brothers are still without access to the protection vaccines provide from death and serious sickness. Imagine if from the start of the pandemic, world leaders had found the same urgency to guarantee equitable vaccine access for the world as they have had for enacting knee-jerk measures like travel bans. Where might we be today? We ask you to advocate to your leaders for the delivery of vaccines in all countries. After all, the virus in any country is a virus everywhere.

South Africa has been unfairly and illogically punished for identifying the omicron variant. We did the right thing by alerting the world and pursuing collaboration with other countries, including those in Europe where omicron was already being transmitted. And why wouldn’t we? A scientist and a good global citizen swiftly reports vital information the world needs to face threats and plays their part to enable the necessary action.

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa has expressed his unhappiness about the treatment of Africa with regards to vaccine inequity and the travel ban, which he said was “another disappointment thrown our way” on top of the disappointment of rich countries hoarding vaccines. “They are just giving us the crumbs from their table,” he said. This is the extremely sad reality we face, which is setting the African continent further back in its recovery from this pandemic.

The proof is in plain sight. To date, high-income countries have given out nearly three times as many booster shots as the total number of doses all low-income countries have administered.

But as President Ramaphosa has also said, “Our lives in Africa are just as important as lives in Europe, North America and all over.” And he’s right.

Omicron is a wake-up call for a world short on cooperation and leadership, and unfortunately long on greed and nationalism.

But we can be better, and it starts with citizens of the world hearing the message their leaders aren’t telling them - that this extraordinary pandemic only ends with an extraordinary global response. It will take citizens demanding action to guarantee both timely and sustainable supply for countries in need, as well as the capacity to get doses in arms in a way that also strengthens their ability to respond to future health threats.

Leaders have committed to achieving a vaccination rate of at least 70 per cent of people in every country by the middle of 2022, but we need a plan to get there and stave off the threat of new, more dangerous variants. We must also be proactive in delivering action that will address the need for booster shots, as people in lower-income countries deserve the same protection as those in high-income countries.

To achieve this, the governments of the G7 and European Union must end their collective subservience to the pharmaceutical industry. They must temporarily set aside their belief in the sanctity of intellectual property and demand that companies share technology and know-how with producers around the world to increase supply and - critically - expand local ownership. Without it, distribution decisions will continue to be concentrated in the hands of the powerful few and there will always be incentive and pressure not to distribute equitably.

We also need these governments to follow through on their dose donation commitments, quickly. With the end of 2021 only a few weeks away, the G7 and EU have only delivered about two-thirds of what they promised to countries in need this year. With many more pledged next year, these governments must be accountable and demand timely delivery for Covax and recipient countries as if it were for their own populations.

To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment sign up to our free weekly Voices newsletter by clicking here

I welcome the much needed call by the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT), the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and Covax for donors to guarantee quality a predictable, reliable supply. Simply put, doses cannot continue to arrive sporadically and close to their expiration dates if they’re to be deployed effectively and help fill the access gap.

Finally, wealthy countries must make a significant down payment to spark a swift scale-up in delivery capacity, demand promotion, and readiness across low- and middle-income countries. In September, President Biden proposed a target of $10bn (£7.5bn), but as much as $20bn (£15bn) could be needed. These investments must be made now to have the runway to increase readiness over the immediate months ahead, as supply access increases through Covax and AVAT.

The pandemic has exposed the world’s systemic inequities that disadvantage and suppress the poorest countries and the most marginalised in society. Fortunately, we now see that this status quo cannot stand.

There’s no more time for knee-jerk responses and no more room for excuses. We must pandemic-proof the world and build a stronger, healthier and more equal future for all. For in the face of global challenges, our fates are all inextricably linked.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka currently serves on the board of international anti-poverty organisation, Global Citizen. She was the deputy president of South Africa from 2005 to 2008, executive director of UN Women from 2013 to 2021, and is founder of Umlambo Foundation.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in